Paper chase

The art of paper-cutting is currently more popular than ever, with its decorative, handmade look being embraced by a host of mass-market clients. Emily Pacey on the revival in the art form’s fortunes

’If there is paper, people will think to cut it up,’ says paper artist Rob Ryan. While associated most with China and the Far East, paper-cutting cannot be claimed by any one culture. In the UK, paper-cutting reached its commercial apogee in the silhouette profiles so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. But for a long time after this golden era, perforations became linked with lowly stamps and humble children’s Christmas decorations.

Until now, that is, when the artform is more popular than ever and its handmade, folksy look is being widely embraced by mass-market clients including Dorset Cereals and John Lewis. ’The playful approach is very in at the moment,’ says Denmark-based paper-cutting artist and graphic designer Kenn Munk, adding that ’paper-cutting is also a wonderful way of printing something using negative space instead of colour’.

Aiding perforated paper proliferation is laser-cutting, which has eased duplication and rapid execution. While the use of lasers is on the rise, most paper-cutters prefer hand-cutting. ’I don’t really like laser-cutting as you have to vector the drawing, and once you have entered it into a machine, you kill it a little bit,’ says Ryan.

Ryan has created hand-cut covers for Stylist magazine, Elle and The Independent Magazine. He is a clear favourite with art directors and likewise enjoys the concept and process of ’drawing and cutting out the whole cover – including the masthead – to create a whole, then photographing it and finally turning it back into something else that it is already made of’.

Asked why paper-cutting is so popular with clients at the moment, he suggests it is ’because they are lame and just copy each other all the time’. He later grows more forgiving and adds, ’By its very nature, paper-cutting tends towards the decorative.’

I am pretty sure that the Rob Ryan boom is going to get a lot of people using the Craftrobo

Munk recently worked on a magazine cover for Scandinavian design magazine AGI, for which he created a perforated rosette design that readers could pop out and make. It is almost impossible to tell what the item is before it is constructed, paper sculptures such as the rosette can have a highly graphic quality when flat and a 3D appeal when assembled. ’The magazine readers are making their own prize,’ says Munk. ’I’ve always wanted to do something like this,but I have only recently had clients that are willing to pay for it. Clients have to be able to see the purpose of paper-cutting first, but once they can see the possibilities it becomes easier to persuade them.’

Magpie Studio won a Design Week Award earlier this month for its perforated display booklet for Royal Mail’s Christmas stamps. According to Magpie Studio creative director David Azurdia, ’We were looking for something that wouldn’t overshadow the stamps and would reflect their nature, so laser-cutting those perforations was great because it allowed us to use a subtle technique that references stamps.’ The perforations also resonate with the translucency and tracery of church windows. However, Azurdia describes laser-cutting as expensive and suited to short runs (only 50 of the Royal Mail leaflets were produced). ’There is a tipping point over which it is not worth doing,’ he says.

A more recent technical innovation that Munk believes could start a paper-cutting epidemic is desktop gizmo Craftrobo, a Japanese invention resembling an inkjet printer, but containing a knife instead of ink.

’I am pretty sure that the Rob Ryan boom is going to get a lot of people using the Craftrobo,’ predicts Munk.

Ryan does not particularly mourn what he sees as the inevitable end of the paper-cutting trend. He says, ’It will pass because none of these things last forever. Someone will start being cynical about it, and then more people will start being cynical and then everyone will stop using it. But bring it on – I don’t care. I don’t feel like part of a movement, and if I get bored with it I can move into print or painting. I will do whatever I want without the commercial world dictating to me.’

_How to hand-cut paper

After drawing an outline, the paper artist cuts using a very sharp knife. To minimise the risk of the paper tearing, the blade should be changed every 15-20 minutes.

The technique of paper-cutting influences the style of illustration, since all the graphics must link up. ’You can’t have a random cloud floating in a sky, so you would have to have a tree or something reaching up to connect it to,’ says Rob Ryan. ’The perspective is flattened.’

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